Régis Debray offers a fresh take on an exasperating but strangely venerable genre.
The list of French anti-American writers is long: it is its own unique genre, one found nowhere else in such abundance. Already, in 1793, Talleyrand, in exile before he would become French foreign minister, wrote in Philadelphia that Americans possessed “neither conversation nor cuisine.” He also famously observed, “These Americans, they have 32 religions but only one dish, roast beef with potatoes.” The genealogy of contemporary anti-Americanism is traceable to the beginning of the nineteenth century, to a Catholic France arrayed against a Protestant America, and then to the twentieth century, when a socialist France confronted a capitalist America; always just beneath the surface is the idea of a civilized France set against a supposedly uncivilized America. French anti-American literature, which Jean-François Revel analyzed perceptively in Anti-Americanism, is faithful to an eternal code: our civilization versus their lack of culture; our spirituality versus their brutality. Beneath these changing ideological masks, we might perhaps discern a rivalry between two nations that claim to be “universalist.” Americans have seized the torch of human rights from France, or at least the claim to embody them.
In his new book, Civilisation: Comment nous sommes devenus américains (Civilization: How We Became Americans), the media-friendly Parisian philosopher Régis Debray—conscience of the French intelligentsia, former comrade of Che Guevara, and now conservative—renews the genre and provides, after a long philosophical meditation, a new report on the state of Franco-American relations. To summarize Debray’s take too briefly: French civilization is finished; we have been absorbed by the American empire; and what remains for us is the refinement of decadence. In an epigraph, Debray cites the revered Catholic philosopher Simone Weil, writing in 1943: “Just as the Nazification of Europe prepared the Nazification of the world, so the Americanization of Europe would prepare the world’s Americanization. The second misfortune is lesser than the first, but in both cases humanity as a whole would lose its past.”
Debray apparently considers this frenzied passage prophetic. He does not spare us the platitude of an America without history: “The making of America was one of constant self-renewal. Europe did the opposite by reinjecting a long history into its present.” This is a debatable prejudice; Debray has little understanding of how much Americans worship their own four centuries of history, to which can be added the histories of all the peoples that constitute the American nation. With Debray, a brilliant style often gets the better of meaning: “The European Union is the self-destruction of Europe.”
For Debray, civilization is ineffable, so it is not necessarily a contradiction that his America is seen entirely from Paris. Unlike many of his anti-American predecessors, Debray does not claim to have visited America or to have reported the horrors he discovered there in the manner of Céline, a rabid anti-American novelist, or of Georges Duhamel in Scènes de la vie future (A Panorama of Our Future). After visiting the United States in 1929, Duhamel, a respected novelist and member of the French academy, described the country as a mechanical, soulless society. His outlook can be summarized by his observation that “American women’s legs are too beautiful: as if they were mass-produced.”
The surprise in Debray’s book is that not all is hateful in the America that has supposedly conquered the French people. France, according to Debray, is caught between the best and the worst that America has to offer. The best includes the movements to liberate women, blacks, and gays that, crossing the Atlantic, also liberated the French; the best also refers to the American writers, musicians, and artists who have enriched the French aesthetic universe and to the technological liberation that was “made in America,” from the washing machine to the Internet. The worst, for Debray, is popular culture, such as Beyoncé—though we must ask whether French popular music is any better.
Worst of all, as Debray sees it, is that the French chose none of this, neither the high nor the low; the American empire imposed it, in the same way that Rome made vassals of conquered peoples, even while granting them Roman citizenship, which acculturated them even more. Unlike the Romans’ subjects, the French were not made subjects through war, Debray argues, but rather through the power of images, cinema, television, and the Internet. He writes that the “GAFA [Google Apple Facebook Amazon] mechanism” will integrate young Muslim immigrants better than any effort to make them French; their superficial Islamic beliefs will drop away. Citing Georges Bernanos, another icon of anti-Americanism, Debray sees the mechanism as “a conspiracy against all of life’s interior space.” Here, he falls back into the most simpleminded anti-Americanism.
Debray reminds us that the French owe individual freedom to English philosophers and gastronomy to Italian cooks. Does he mean to suggest, then, that good and bad ways exist of mixing cultures? It’s hard to say. He also seems to believe that the worst form of resistance to the American empire is the European project. Debray never offers a definition of French civilization, but he clearly doesn’t see it as European. He execrates the European Union as “a globish-speaking supermarket,” failing to acknowledge that it has pacified a continent on which war was long endemic.
As I closed Debray’s sometimes delirious, sometimes amusing, welter of a book, it struck me that the America that we are told about in Paris does not really exist. As is the case with many anti-American expressions, Debray’s book is not about a real society but rather a mental construction, a devil that will supposedly explain all the changes in French society that we dislike. In truth, what Debray calls America is modernity itself—France’s as well as that of the United States.